Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bond, Agents And All That Stuff

I've been busy the last few weeks, with travel, and also trying to get my children's book into some shape.  That's why the blog has been dormant.  The work is still in progress but I've learnt quite a bit that I didn't know about trying to get a book published!

When Bond brings to mind Michael rather than James and agents are invariably literary, it's time to finalize that list of people to send your manuscript to.  I began with Indian publishers for children's books and wondered whether to contact an agent or not.  Searched on the internet and found a handful of agents and authors and children's publishers (no dedicated children's book agents) - each set cursing the other and decided it's probably simpler to begin on my own.  The good news is that apart from the usual publishers, I found a couple of small but enthusiastic new ones - Tota and Yolk Pickle, whose voices I liked.  Whether they will like mine is moot.

I continued my research by checking on U.K. agents (largely based in London), the idea being that the commonwealth group might be easier to reach out to, in the case of an Indian book.  I've made a list of fifteen (though ambitious authors advise going through entire books of agents' addresses and mailing them in batches of twenty five!  Almost all agents now only accept queries by email, which seems to enable this kind of process).  Of these, one represents Bond (yes, the one who wrote Paddington), another Milne and  Shepard (Winnie the Pooh etc.) ...ooops!  Regarding illustrations, there seems to be no rule.  Whether one should write 'XXX and YYY' for author and illustrator, (the advantage in this case as far as I can tell is that some publishers only want single author cum illustrators (I don't know why) and maybe will extend themselves to a team) or whether to specify 'written by XXX and illustrated by YYY', which, to me is only fair.  Then there is a another set who says 'Don't bother with illustrations, we have our own illustrators and so do the publishers' (or we know what we want).  It's too late to pander to this group though they are welcome to reject our illustrations.  A tiny set say, 'No unillustrated manuscripts will be read'.  I can safely send my draft to this minority.  Whew!

As for the illustrations, they are still in progress, about two thirds are done.  It's been a terrific learning experience, working with an unknown foreign artist miles away.  Once we got to the thick of things, where the story moved to India, chaos began.  The illustrator (naturally) had no idea that small town garages and shops were not gleaming and filled with machinery and that women were not typically tall, aggressive and dungaree-clad.  Where to begin to fill the gaps?  I gave a one-paragraph description and about five pictures of street scenes (including Indian cows!) and he came up with a terrific picture, so realistic that one would not guess he had never stepped into an Indian town.  In this process, I also remembered that in the sixties and seventies, the only cars sold were fiats, ambassadors and standard heralds.  From there we proceeded, with the usual ups and downs, some successes and some failures and a lot of learning.

I realised how invaluable Indian film songs were to describe certain scenes, and it turned out he liked music and now wants to visit India with his girlfriend sometime!  What songs did I send?  My story is set is the sixties and seventies, a time when many pleasant songs existed in relatively down to earth settings.  But to showcase some of the natural beauty and joy that still exists in this large and varied country, the song I liked best was from the early nineties, 'Chinna Chinna Aasai' (from the film Roja).  It's been translated into other languages, but I give below the link to the original Tamil version.  When I need to take a break from those long lists I am still compiling (will have to begin the U.S. agent list next, which will be an uphill task), I sit back and listen to this song, which my son likes as well.  It translates to 'Tiny tiny hopes...'

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Flying Finish

My mother had a little sign in her consultation room (that doubled up as my bedroom).  It hangs there still, many years after her death, and each time I see it I remember her philosophy.  Hand painted, blue letters on a white board proclaim, "Miracles happen".  I have always believed in miracles and am ever delighted when I see them unfolding around me.  Not the phenomena couched in mysterious, religious or philosophical explanations, but in those down to earth situations that call for determination, faith and the sensing of an inner purpose.

Sport is one of the most direct and dramatic ways to see some of these extraordinary achievements- the result of people who use their gifts, with the necessary focus and intuition to attain something previously unreached.  The recent Champions League football match (Barcelona vs Paris Saint- Germaine) was one such event.  In a way it was more exciting than watching a solo performance for it was a team effort, with both teams playing at full strength.  Individuals certainly helped but the game went beyond big names.  Fortuitous events did occur, but they did not dominate in any way.  It was the effort of a team fighting for everything, with no time to spare (without the luxury of extra time), willing to convert every move into an opportunity and believing in themselves until the end.

Many people have described it better than me; the New York Times had a write up which summed up the situation and game wonderfully (if one ignores a stray reference to the American Super Bowl, possibly thrown in to woo their local readers).  Here is a link-

Here is another link to some highlights leading to that soaring, giddy feeling of having achieved the (almost) impossible - a flying finish that is just the beginning.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts On Writing

I can't think of a time when I didn't enjoy writing.  And so, when I came to a blank wall at a stage in my career as a scientist, and had the option of choosing an alternate way to spend my time, I decided to try my hand at writing.  It began with a trickle (and continues, for various reasons at that pace!) but in the course of over a decade, I have tried my hand at various kinds of writing and have learnt an enormous amount, more than any formal course would have taught me.

A few days ago, after my recent manuscript was shot down (it has happened on innumerable occasions!) I happened to sit and reminisce, to dwell on where my various pieces of writing had led me.  It may not be as interesting for readers as it is for me, but I decided to write down some of my thoughts.

When I first began, I wrote whatever came into my mind.  I felt I needed to write, to begin the flow of thoughts and their translation into words.  I began with a children's book (which I illustrated) - far from perfect, but enjoyable.  All the neighbours' children liked it, which was good enough for me!  A series of poems and a short play followed.  No one was interested in doing anything with these though people were happy to read them.  The short pieces led me on - I wanted to write longer stories and I began writing novellas and a longish interconnected tale of stories- science fiction for young adults.  At the time, the ideas were all part of fiction but now several are taking shape in our present world as science advances.  This manuscript actually made it through to the final stage, past the editors, but was shot down by the marketing team who said they would not be able to sell it.

Writing long pieces is very different from short stories - I learnt about the importance of discipline, consistency and also about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  I have no illusions about my writing - it's done in a very basic and simple (often conversational) style.  I write largely but not entirely for myself, in the hope that people might relate to or be helped in some manner by a few of my thoughts.  Sometimes I just write to vent my feelings!  Most of all, I like to write to express my faith in the strange but wonderful ways of life and the world around us.

Science fiction led to real life science reporting - a form of archiving.  My husband pointed out one day that no one interviewed and recorded Indian science in the country (that was over a decade ago).  Why not try?  There were several outstanding scientists and engineers who had innovated and invented entirely in India - their work would be interesting to document and it would be good for people (especially students who keep talking about the limitations of opportunities in this country) to know about amazing things that could be done with good ideas and determination.  I approached a science journal for permission to write.  Reluctantly they agreed.  Before each piece, I would get their permission and then be given a relatively free hand to proceed.  This was my introduction to interviewing people, recording their words and thinking about how to demystify technical issues for a lay audience.  I also had to do some basic photography, for I needed recent photographs of the speakers (and had no cameraman with me!).  It was an incredible experience and all the scientists I interviewed were enthusiastic and gracious.  Somehow this column gained a lot of popularity and many others began to do similar series of interviews.  I decided it was time to bow out.

I had always felt that one needed to be outgoing, outspoken and quick thinking to do justice to interviews but I realized that this was not essential.  I (a water person, according to the Chinese five elements) blended so much into the background that I found the scientists talking aloud, almost as if to themselves.  All I had to do was sit and listen, and to talk only if a clarification or specific change in direction was required.  It was a time when I really learned the importance of listening and accurately conveying information without distorting it or bringing any aspect of myself into the picture.  I got letters from several readers who had known the speakers, saying the interviews gave them the feeling that the speaker had appeared before them and was talking to them.

There is often a pattern in the way we work, though it is not evident to us at the time.  After the interview series, I realized that just as there were people who had changed the way Indian science  functioned, there had been drastic events that had reshaped Indian lives and our environment - these were often described in political terms but not scientific ones.  One such extreme event was the Bhopal gas tragedy.  I wanted to document it in greater detail as seen by the scientists who were actually on the scene.  Now the information is declassified but when I began, no one was allowed to publish their Bhopal scientific data.  Short interviews would not suffice.  I began by talking to some of the more active scientists, several are dead now and the ones that remain are very old.  I did not finish this piece of work but it led me to a phase of conducting very long recordings that gave me a glimpse into ways of doing science very different from how they are done today.  I gave up this project during my pregnancy for I felt it was too morose a subject to pursue at the time.

Somewhere along the way, one of my very close friends suggested writing a blog and I wondered.  Well, you know the result of that venture (and I thank you all for your patience in reading all that I have to say).  Writing short pieces for an unknown but direct audience (no editors!) and the ease of publishing things online brings with it a different kind of responsibility.  The typed word cannot be erased - a sobering thought when spontaneity beckons!

In the midst of all this, my aunt wanted to write a cookbook.  She and I share a passion for cooking, and I began this as well, along with a friend who is a photographer.  Documenting family recipes, testing them, making notes and the most challenging of all - trying to photograph them at home under very basic conditions was a different kettle of fish.  This is a huge tome and it's still very far from completion.

Recently I wrote a draft for a children's book, this one was based on my own experiences with my toddler, who wanted to read 'Marco Polo Gets A Job!'  Not finding any such story, I wrote one, and sent it as an entry for a contest.  As with my other manuscripts, this one did not even make the shortlist (far from getting any awards!!).  But the friends I sent it to liked the story and I do too (on the scale of children's books, I think it's quite comparable to some of the more entertaining ones).  So I have decided to get it illustrated (by someone better than myself), send it out for another round and then if (or when!) all else fails, to self publish.  This recent exercise has been one of tremendous learning once more.

I wrote to an illustrator in Bangalore but got no reply.  I looked at all the Indian children's books we had collected but could find nothing suitable to the style I had in mind (the current trend in books here is a colourful folk style, which doesn't really suit my story).  I looked at the foreign children's books that I really liked - all my favourites were from British publishers.  I wrote to the illustrator I most admired - Juan Wijngaard (who magically illustrated 'Cloud Tea Monkeys') with no hope of getting a reply.  Surprisingly, he did write back - a long detailed letter about how the world of children's book illustrators worked. explaining the time and financial commitments, the royalty involved and the fact that basically the publishers dealt with the whole exercise.  It was a very kind letter, giving me a glimpse of a world I knew nothing about.  He added that he was flattered that I had thought of him (!!) and that he had stopped illustrating children's books and only focussed on art that he wanted to create.

After that, I confess I didn't spend hours looking for all possible Indian illustrators - I have very little spare time each day.  I knew that my book on its own would never make it to a publisher - publishers rarely touch unknown authors and one needs a very good agent, someone I have not yet found.  I tried the internet and eventually contacted a person whose illustrations I liked, whose time frame and budget were reasonable.  In this manner, I have begun this new venture, with an illustrator from Uruguay, who is pleasant, who seems to have liked my story and is enjoying illustrating it.

We have just begun and I have never before worked with an unknown person across the net.  It's the first time that my words are being put into pictures by someone else - and I have given them the freedom (with a brief explanation of what was in my mind when I wrote the story) to depict the characters and scenes as they want to.  Now I truly understand the importance of a symbiotic relationship between writer and illustrator - the words tell a story but the pictures draw attention to some aspects of it in a distinctive style.  It's very enjoyable to see the addition of colour and pictures to black and white typing - drawings that would not be meaningful on their own but that make a page come alive for a child (and hopefully for their parents too).  I have no idea where this will lead or how it will turn out, but it's a new and very interesting turn that my writing had led me to and I'm enjoying every moment of it so far.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Trip To Kolkata

Kolkata is always an interesting city to visit.  It is filled to the brim with sound and life and incredible street scenes, and overflows with people who are on average more temperamental and vocal than those in many other parts of the country.  Partly because it has not been able to attract much industry, it remains a family oriented city - one sees a lot of middle aged and elderly people moving about (the men often clustered together gossiping in their 'addas', the women bustling in groups or ferrying their children between school and tuition classes or shopping or doing arty stuff!).  Despite the noise and the rush, if one manages to time things correctly, there are quiet spots and peaceful spaces to be found.

My little son and I had developed a nice routine - we would wake at the crack of dawn (the best way to function as Kolkata lies so much to the east that dusk approaches by five in the evening), have a delicious breakfast of local fruit (very hard to find yellow 'desi' papaya, wonderfully sweet and juicy little Darjeeling oranges and more), then head to the lakes.  The lakes and the surrounding parks are very peaceful early in the morning.  There are some morning walkers and a motley group of young men doing miscellaneous exercises - for martial arts, wrestling etc. but in the relaxed Bengali way, stopping every few minutes to rest.  Most of the old men would stop to say, "Hallo dada (older brother)" to my son!).  Policemen stand about, talking about subjects like what a pity it is that little children must be compelled to carry big bags and so on.  The lakes are full of fish; amazingly they are also clubs along the banks that offer very professional training in swimming and rowing.  Regattas are often held in the mornings.

We ate large meals of tender winter vegetables, fresh hill greens and ferns and delicious winter fish.  We would spend the afternoons slumbering - the Kolkata sun (as Bengalis say) is sleep inducing!  The air was still a little cool and we used light quilts, hand stitched, of the softest old cotton sarees, made even softer by decades of washing, their colours surprisingly intact.  These quilts make use of the traditional kantha stitch that now adorns many fabrics, sarees (and even a little cloth elephant in London)!

Evenings were spent in shopping, visiting tea shops or sweet shops or walking by the lakes again- the lakes look very different in the light of the setting sun.  As the weather was still cool, all the sweet shops were filled with notun gur mishti - sweets made from the new (year's) palm jaggery.  Tea shops typically serve Anglo Indian fare - sandwiches, pastry, puffs, pies (and even delicious scones!) along with Darjeeling tea.

We bought various bits of food to take back - the local varieties of rice, which are all very different from what we get in other parts, kasundi (a Bengali piquant mustard paste eaten with fried fish and other such stuff), palm jaggery, pumpkin flowers (or pumpkin blossoms, as my son calls them) which are delicious when dipped into a batter and fried and freshly harvested turmeric and tiny bitter neem leaves.  I have often wondered what to do with fresh turmeric - it's so mild and aromatic but is a pain to peel and grind for every dish.  The wise Bengalis (especially women) eat little nuggets of it raw, along with neem leaves.  My relatives turned up their noses but I quite like it and find it very good for my liver, and my little son also chomps it down quite happily (asking every morning for his meen leaves and haldi)!

One morning we went to the riverside and took a row boat down the Hooghly.  It was peaceful (and not surprisingly - sleep inducing!).  This was how we spent much of our time - outside with flowers, fish, the spring air, the river and at home, with our excitable, endearing Bengali family.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Warm Thoughts on a Cold January Day

I apologise for the delay in wishing all of you a very happy new year!  It was a cold that did it.  A mild fleeting cold after a trip of many firsts, to the heartland of north India - Kanpur and Lucknow.

It was an exciting trip.  The first visit that my son made to these cities (and my first trip to the genteel, many dimensioned city of Lucknow), my son's first stay in a guest house and a hotel, first sighting of peacocks and buffaloes. his first bus ride, his first auto ride, his first cycle rickshaw ride, his first soak in a big hot tub, his introduction to a vacuum cleaner (he loves sweeping and mopping), his first jalebi , giant gulab jamun and naan (and my introduction to Awadhi cuisine ).

We were in Kanpur to attend my husband's college reunion and in Lucknow just to spend a comfortable night before taking the next flight back home.  Kanpur was fun but tiring as these events tend to be - meeting lots of old (and new) friends over a short span of time.

Lucknow was more relaxed - we had a lovely room with a large, private garden full of winter flowers, which was made all the more exciting by a resident mongoose.  We ate shorba (spiced broth) and chaat for lunch, an odd but delicious combination.  Different kinds of rotis (traditional breads), kebabs and biryani for dinner along with half a dozen chutneys and pickles, and a delicious rabri (sweet made with thickened milk).  I have never been particularly drawn to spices, feeling that Indian food is often over-spiced, but these dishes, where the flavour of each spice emerged so clearly and complemented the other so distinctly, were very appetising.  I was impressed with the (small set of) Awadhi dishes that I tasted and have resolved to find out more.  Unlike my experience of eating Indian food outside the home, where I often encounter generic red chilly powder liberally sprinkled over food, and find that it drills holes in my stomach, this food left barely a trace.  Much of the heat in the food came from ginger, black pepper and perhaps some freshly ground chillies.

Renewed and refreshed, we were looking forward to getting back home (with thoughts of returning to Lucknow some other time), when the hotel staff dropped the equivalent of a bomb on us.  The Prime Minister had decided to visit Lucknow (capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which was currently seething with political mayhem; the much awaited state elections are round the corner) - we should leave early in order to reach the airport.  How early?  No one (especially the unhelpful air hostesses of our airline, who were also residing at our hotel) could clearly indicate.  With a little child in tow and having to pack our belongings as well as lunch and tea (in case there were flight delays), it was a race against time.  We thought we were fairly safe when the cab pulled in at our hotel, and the driver took off early enough (complaining incessantly about road blocks) but this was just the beginning of a long adventure.

As we proceeded, we could see car loads and bus loads of villagers being brought in with the main purpose of flooding the city for the rally.  People were hostile and belligerent, our driver (whose reactions were a few seconds slower than mine) made me a little nervous, I hoped he wouldn't bump into any of the vehicles as we inched along.  The police misdirected us and finally were stuck in the middle lane of a three lane jam on the peak of a flyover.  "If I can get off this flyover, I can try another road," said the driver peering down hopefully, as if he wanted to drive off the flyover into the empty space below.  I told him his best bet was to keep inching (and not switch off the engine which he had done gloomily, convinced that we would never get anywhere).

Inch by inch, we went down, and then he suddenly veered off to a small side road, drove like the wind, only to reach (with a satisfied smile) the gates of a petrol pump.  "I need CNG," he announced, "Everyone has to get off the car."  Easier said than done.  Try to explain to a two year old why we are veering off the road, what the noise and crowds are about, why we should stay calm and eat our cold packed food periodically so as to stay energetic and remain hydrated and step out of the car in the middle of nowhere on a cold winter morning...

Anyway, gas filled, the driver seemed more cheerful, and immediately we set off, backtracking a few kilometres.  Then  onto side roads, bumpy tracks, through some fields and hamlets on the outskirts of Lucknow, trying to overtake scooters, tempos, cows on the one-lane village roads.  With the driver honking loudly and making blind turns, I hoped that all the children running on the road would move away in time.  At one moment, we came to a screeching halt because someone had parked a dashing new red car in the middle of the road and vanished.  No sign of the driver, another car waiting frustratedly ahead of us.  Luckily it was only about a ten minute wait.  The owner strode along, at an unhurried pace, looked around calmly, tried to start his car a few times, then (to our relief) succeeded and drove off.  We continued, the driver telling us how he was risking all by trying to get us to the airport, my husband trying to call the call centre for the airlines and inform them we were on our way, the google map (very accurately) predicting another traffic holdup a few metres down the road.  We swerved and went onto the highway (the wrong way), horn blasting, hoping that the old man on the rickety cycle who was looking backwards at the rally, would see us in time, hoping that the trucks and cars and motor cycles would give way, and with much cursing, the driver finally arrived at the airport.

We disembarked, and then my husband couldn't find our identity cards (required for entry to the airport, in this case they were our driving licenses).  Finally he found them jammed in a corner of his pocket.  We rushed through, trying to tell the security that we were in a hurry.  Cleary, they weren't.  We reached just half an hour before our flight was to take off.  Somehow all the other passengers were there.  Somehow, miraculously, we were let in.  The only person who frowned was the lady at the counter who told me I wasn't holding my son properly, and that's why he was screaming his head off.

We were drenched in sweat (no blood or tears fortunately).  Peeled off our layers of sweaters.  The flight was a little late (thank heavens for small mercies).  Our neighbouring passengers frowned and made rude faces as our son (strapped into his seat) was still screaming from time to time.  I tried to play some music but these fellow passengers (all belonging to one large disapproving family) frowned upon it too.  Finally I played the movie 'Bend it like Beckham' without the volume (which was the only thing saved on our computer).  Slowly, gradually, my son calmed down and he finally fell asleep.  I glugged glass after glass of water and ate my anti-migraine pills...

It was a relief to get back home.  Not soon after though, my husband came down with a cold, and my son followed.  My maid left suddenly to attend funerals and family functions, for an unknown period of time.  We had a flurry of visitors (new friends and old).  Finally, I too succumbed to the virus.  It wasn't too bad, but probably the cumulative exertion had left me drained of energy, so much so I couldn't write or do much.

Now, with energy seeping back in waves, with trees outside bursting with birds, I sit down on this crisp January afternoon and wish all my readers a warming and happy year ahead.  And think of my resolutions for this year.

Little things of the spirit are what I want to focus on - not national or global catastrophes or authoritative policies that change our lives overnight.  I don't want to sink in gloom each time (and it's unfortunately very often!) I see signs of intolerance, insensitivity and various forms of deception and mediocrity around me.

This year I choose to focus on individuals (who I may or may not know directly) who have changed my life in a positive way.   To be thankful for those who have helped me in small but important ways (Kiaro, the wonderfully professional organic milk company who agreed to deliver to my doorstep even though no one else in this area wanted the milk), Fresh to Home, our terrific online doorstep deliverer of fresh seafood and chemical free meats, our neighbourhood shops which stock organically grown foods and also home deliver fairly healthy pizza (which has staved off emergencies and hunger pangs!).  Those who hand knitted sweaters for my son (as I couldn't find suitable winter clothing anywhere here to brave the north Indian cold), those who dropped by with amazing and thoughtful gifts (including a pair of gigantic exciting kites for my son, an engraved artisanal cutting board in maple wood that came all the way from Stanford for me and piles of fresh fruit sent carefully wrapped in giant fig leaves, from Pune for all of us).

And so this year I have decided to focus on doing small things which make me happy, knowing that there will be a ripple effect, but even if there isn't, I'm not overly concerned.  For me, this is not the year of Grand Plans.  It's a year of working quietly and happily on my own - to restart some yoga eventually, to write some fiction (for myself), to make some more artisanal breads - and to learn some more about Awadhi food (a style of cooking influenced by the food of central Asia, northern India and the long years of Mughal rule).  To learn knitting!  These are my plans, and how they unfold only time (and my blog perhaps!) can tell...
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